The Problematic Persistence of Tiered Grading in Medical School

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Issue: The evaluation of medical students is a critical, complex, and controversial process. It is tightly woven into the medical school curriculum, beginning at the inception of the medical student’s professional journey. In this respect, medical student evaluation is among the first in a series of ongoing, lifelong assessments that influence the interpersonal, ethical, and socioeconomic dimensions necessary for an effective physician workforce. Yet, tiered grading has a questionable historic pedagogic basis in American medical education, and evidence suggests that tiered grading itself is a source of student burnout, anxiety, depression, increased competitiveness, reduced group cohesion, and racial biases. Evidence: In its most basic form, medical student evaluation is an assessment of the initial cognitive and technical competencies ultimately needed for the safe and effective practice of contemporary medicine. At many American medical schools, such evaluation relies largely on norm-based comparisons, such as tiered grading. Yet, tiered grading can cause student distress, is considered unfair by most students, is associated with biases against under-represented minorities, and demonstrates inconsistent correlation with residency performance. While arguments that tiered grading motivates student performance have enjoyed historic precedence in academia, such arguments are not supported by robust data or theories of motivation. Implications: Given the evolving recognition of the deleterious effects on medical student mental health, cohesiveness, and diversity, the use of tiered grading in medical schools to measure or stimulate academic performance, or by residency program directors to distinguish residency applicants, remains questionable. Examination of tiered grading in its historical, psychometric, psychosocial, and moral dimensions and the various arguments used to maintain it reveals a need for investigation of, if not transition to, alternative and non-tiered assessments of our medical students.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalTeaching and Learning in Medicine
StateAccepted/In press - 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Education


Dive into the research topics of 'The Problematic Persistence of Tiered Grading in Medical School'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this